Sun Ra and Myth Science…


Sun Ra: Angels and Demons At Play/The Nubians of Plutonia

サン・ラー: ザー・ニュービーアンズ・オブ・プリュートニア
1969 Saturn Research LP 406

Plutonian Nights (4:22)
The Lady with the Golden Stockings (7:41)
Star Time (4:18)
Nubia (8:14)
Africa (5:06)
Watusa (2:36)
Aethiopia (7:12)

サン・ラー: エーンジェルズ・アンド・ディーモンズ・アット・プレー
1965: Saturn LP 9956-2-0

Tiny Pyramids (3:28)
Between Two Worlds (1:56)
Music from the World Tomorrow (2:20)
Angels and Demons at Play (2:51)
Umack (3:46)
Medicine for a Nightmare (2:16)
A Call for All Demons (4:12)
Demon’s Lullaby (2:35)

 As an anonymous jazz critic lamented in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, “with the current lack of new ideas in jazz, charlatans have a chance too” (1970, No. #47, p. 228), referring to pianist Herman Poole Blount, whose music has been the focus of much debate, criticism, appreciation, and analysis. So why did this occur? The following story will begin to shed some light on Blount and his music.

Many years ago, a volunteer at the Edmonton Jazz Festival was assigned diving duties for Blount, to transport he and members of his group the Sun Ra Arkestra between Calgary and Edmonton for their respective festivals. Over the three-hour journey, Blount spent much of the time scribbling in a small black notebook, often pausing to think and look out the window. The volunteer was extremely curious about the contents of book, and made it his mission to peak inside of it at any given opportunity. During a brief pause at a gas station to refuel, the band exited to buy snacks, presenting the driver with his opportunity. It turned out to be a small collection of crossword puzzles. But why was the driver obsessed with Blount’s book?

Blount, who later changed his named to Sun Ra, was a particularly unique jazz musician who engaged in what is known as myth science: imagining science fiction themed futures through costumery, lighting, music that often was avant-garde, poetry, his public interviews and so on. Ra proclaimed that he was from Saturn and/or went to Saturn and came back to play cosmic music that would bring about world peace.

Because of this the mystique and legend surrounding Ra was such that the aforementioned jazz festival driver was immensely interested in peaking into Ra’s black notebook to see if there was anything of philosophical or literary importance, any arcana he could glean and share with his friends: wisdom or creative mythology that would give the driver social capital amongst his peers (status via participation in the Ra mythos through personal contact with the master myth-scientist himself).

Sun Ra would later become associated with what is known as “Afrofuturism”: an African-American movement combining science fiction, mythology, philosophy, fantasy, and social critique, what Paul Jasen (in his book Bass, Bodies and the Materiality of Sonic Experience, p. 200) calls “application of imaginative force to the alteration of lived reality” with which African Americans might invent their own “Alter Destiny”. As Ra himself states, “myth permits man to situate himself with the past and the future. What I am looking for are the myths of the future, the destiny of man… if one wants to act on the destiny of the world, it’s necessary to treat it like a myth” (as quoted in Graham Locke’s book Blutopia, p. 61). Ra’s myth-science itself was highly influential and immense, drawing upon ancient hermetic writing, religious texts, theosophy, contemporary science fiction, and cryptic numerology, and was instrumental in reviving African-American interest in ancient Egypt. Ra called his various assembled sidemen “tone scientists”, and even had the chance to make a science fiction film based on his philosophy (Space is The Place: directed by John Coney, 1974) in which he battles NASA scientists and a pimp-Overlord to save the black youths of Oakland, California and recruit them for his Saturn colony.

The soundtrack to this film though may be where casual fans of Ra get their perceptions of him and his avant-gardism/myth-science, as the opening track (“It’s After The End of the World”), for example, is a series of chromatic organ chords mixed with shrieking saxophone, which one could certainly (non-pejoratively) imagine as some kind of attempt at space-jazz. Other tracks on the album contain enough free form and structural elements as to stereotype Ra as avant-gardist, whether one enjoys such music and ideology, or not. This raises the issue whether myth “science” can provides any guarantee that any/all mythologies will avoid inculcating actual delusion, cult behavior, oppression, or other modes of thought and action that are intellectually suspect, or obscure social reality. Ra was briefly affiliated with the Back Panthers until he left the group due to ideological issues. But as Ra’s is a creative jazz-based uplifting Afrofuturism, it would seem that Ra’s “myth-sciencing” succeeded at both an Afro-positive/literally universal version of the future, where musicians like Ra engaged in what Kenyan philosopher Henry Odera Oruka called “philosophical sagacity”, in both academic and the non-written “wise man” traditions (such as the griot, folk singer, etc).

So having said that we arrive at Sun Ra’s music and the man himself, a supposed mythic jazz figure who supposed played cosmic, (often but not exclusively) free form “space music” literally and possibly exclusively. But what we find on these two LPs, sold on CD as a double album, is something potentially much more interesting and less stereotypical than that. Though the Second Wave of free jazz was now established (performers who came along after the innovations of saxophonist Ornette Coleman) when this LP was released, Sun Ra’s music closer to the First Wave on The Nubians of Plutonia, with compositions like “Plutonian Nights” and “Star Time” sounding more like loose versions of songs from the hard bop genre of jazz, as the recording session for this LP’s songs was done approx. ten years earlier. These same recording sessions also produced the piece “Africa” which is difficult to describe without referring to several genres of music: doo-wop, free jazz, traditional African rhythm, and so on.

The music on the LP Angels And Demons At Play also challenges the notion that Ra was some kind of mystic ergo his music would be de facto psychedelic in a jazz format, as evidenced by “Tiny Pyramids” (actually written by Ronnie Boykins), with its carefully composed introduction and strict time keeping in the rhythm section. Most famous of the songs collected on this LP though are “A Call For All Demons”, or possibly “Angels And Demons At Play”, which one would assume use extensive free jazz soloing to create a “demonic” (atonal, dissonant, wild) feel. But the former is a standard sounding hard bop take on both Latin rhythm and the blues, while the latter is what is known as a “vamp (song played over a single chord or two) in the time signature of 5/4. In fact, a “Call For All Demons” is included in what is known as The Real Book, a large volume of transcribed songs bassist Steve Swallow (due to copyright: “allegedly”) compiled as a working musician. The original Real Book has been covertly copied or sold in the thousands over the decades, possibly in a million copies combined, as it is the essential jazz sheet music collection, and Ra is included. The song “Music From The World Tomorrow” though does reinforce Ra’s reputation as a free form tone scientist, with its chromatic chords, bowed/plucked zither, extensive percussion, and bowed bass. Thus, it is easy to isolate and promote this track as an “example” of Sun Ra’s greater oeuvre.

Ultimately, what the aforementioned examples illustrate is that Ra was more than just an avant-gardist, myth-scientist, hard bop pianist, or any other moniker. He was an important part of jazz history and it’s development, a very interesting thinker, a highly creative artist, and a great performer throughout his career.


13 thoughts on “Sun Ra and Myth Science…

  1. Reblogged this on Daniel Paul Marshall and commented:
    i don’t understand why everyone on WordPress still hasn’t followed Mr Schnee’s blog: he’s a bonafide, certified, amiable genius of an uncommon type.
    Here he is writing about one of my favourite (& one of the most prolific & interesting) jazz musicians of all time, as well focusing in on 2 of my favorite albums in jazz music—here is Daniel Schnee talking about Sun Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’s Angel & Demons at Play & the Nubians of Plutonia… (If you haven’t heard these albums, you are problem shaving off years of your life because of this, go & listen to them now & increase your longevity seven fold.

          1. Actually, i think if you used tags you’d get more traffic. For example in this article, just jazz, music, jazz music, afrofuturism, myth, religion, philosophy. Though not acute, there is something of all these in the article & people will decide if they like it, they won’t think, “hey this is music not philosophy” but will mostly see the point. Try it next time, i am sure you’ll see a difference in the volume of readers.

            1. I guess so. I am not really looking for lots of readers per se, just the chance to write and add my perspectives to the greater cyber-universe. A few thousand people have checked out my website’s articles, photos and download-ables, which I had tried to make educational…so that is fine with me. I’d rather have one you than a million “likes”.

  2. Just brilliant. Thanks for this. The story at the beginning is great. i love how bathetic it is. This guy so curious, then discovering he’d been doing crosswords. Wonder if crosswords were an important ingredient in Ra’s music?

    Do you know of any articles on Ra i might find on the internet?

    1. Päivi Väätänen’s “Sun Ra: Myth, Science, and Science Fiction” is a good start.

      Also, Ekkhard Jost’s book “Free Jazz” is the essential starting place to understand free jazz academically, even though it was written in over 40 years ago, and much scholarship has taken place since. I would buy Jost’s book as a reference, and as an interesting read.

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